An upcoming dockside classroom and laboratory at the Discovery Center could be a major nucleus for maritime innovation, leaders of the project said.
The Freshwater Research and Innovation Center, a new facility planned for the Discovery Center & Pier property on West Grand Traverse Bay, is expected to provide a space for students, scientists and entrepreneurs to test new technologies. Many of those technologies will incorporate automation and artificial intelligence, said Hans VanSumeren, director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College.
Those advances can be applied to shipping and communication, Great Lakes modeling, and water quality testing.
“The Great Lakes are often diminished compared to the oceans because they're smaller and shallower,” VanSumeren said. “They don't represent the magnitude of the oceans.
“Yet, we still have 10- to 12-meter waves in our basin. We have enormous storms and current events that occur throughout the Great Lakes Basin. We have ice. … It really gives (researchers) a testbed that they don't have anywhere else.”
Early concepts for the research center envisioned an 85,000-square-foot building with space for multiple laboratories, classrooms, and a start-up incubation space. Those plans are still tentative, said Matt McDonough, CEO of the Discovery Center.
Project partners this year will begin the project's next phases, including fundraising, pier development, campus design and planning.
Earlier this month, the partners — Discovery Center & Pier, Michigan Technological University, Northwestern Michigan College, Traverse Connect and 20Fathoms — announced an award of $1.6 million in federal funds to start some of that preliminary work.
In the meantime, some water-related research projects could begin as soon as this summer, according to previous reports.
The soon-to-begin planning process also will help determine the cost of the building itself. In this initial phase, McDonough and his partners were originally hoping for $3 million, which would have helped finance a larger portion of the necessary infrastructure work on the pier before construction can begin in earnest.
Even so, “we feel really lucky,” McDonough said. “I mean, it gets us halfway there.”
McDonough and VanSumeren began collaborating on the Freshwater Center plan shortly after McDonough took his position with the Discovery Center in 2019.
The center, originally launched by Rotary Charities in 2006, had some facilities nearing the end of their useful life. It was time to begin looking at what the “next iteration” of the center should be, McDonough said.
Traverse Connect and 20Fathoms, involved in local business development, came on board as partners during the intervening years.
Traverse Connect was especially crucial in contacting the office of U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, to help secure federal funding for the project, McDonough said.
The Great Lakes Water Studies Institute already had a relationship with Michigan Technological University.
“They've been a fantastic partner,” VanSumeren said. “A true collaborator.”
As of last week, McDonough said they don't know when they'll see those federal dollars. But the project leaders know what they are getting, so they're planning to do as much work as they can upfront, including fundraising to acquire the remaining $1.4 million needed for infrastructure.
If they can get the research center completed “in the next three to five years, that'll be a great goal to shoot for,” he said.
“It's a big project. It's going to take some time, but it's exciting,” VanSumeren said. “Maybe I will be retired by the time it's fully, fully going, but it's still going to be fun to look back on and know that I got to be part of it from the beginning.”
Report for America corps member and data journalist William T. Perkins' reporting is made possible by a partnership between the Record-Eagle and Report for America, a journalism service project founded by the nonprofit Ground Truth Project. Community support helps fund a local share of the Record-Eagle/RFA partnership. To support RFA reporters in Traverse City, go to www.record-eagle.com/rfa.
John Ravenporton is a writer for many popular online publications. John is now our chief editor at DailyTechFeed. John specializes in Crypto, Software, Computer and Tech related articles.